In August 2018, Mapping Media Freedom verified a total of 42 reports – many relating to the most serious categories of violations of media freedom – in 28 EU countries, five candidate countries and two potential candidate countries.
“In addition to the actual physical assaults against journalists reported in August, the frequency with which journalists are threatened – sometimes even being targeted by death threats – shows the lengths to which those who try to silence the media are prepared to go,” Paula Kennedy, assistant editor, Mapping Media Freedom, said.
The most serious categories represented were: physical assault (8 reports), intimidation (15), online harassment (7), arrests/detentions (3), criminal charges (5), defamation/discredit (6) and censorship (7).
Physical assaults: Journalists’ safety at risk
There were 8 physical assaults recorded by MMF in August: 2 in EU member state Poland, 2 in potential candidate state Bosnia-Herzegovina, and one each in member states Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Spain.
In both the Polish cases, journalists working for the privately-owned TVN24 were targeted by members of the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party or businessmen associated with the party. In one case, a TVN24 reporter who attempted to interview the prime minister was manhandled by a PIS MEP. In the most serious of the Bosnian incidents, a journalist with the private national broadcaster BN TV – which often carries reports critical of the Bosnian Serb government led by Milorad Dodik – was beaten up by two hooded men in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of the Republika Srpska.
In the Bulgarian case, a reporter covering Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s visit to some archaeological excavations was struck with a large microphone by a government press officer. In Hungary, a journalist for the independent news website hvg.hu was assaulted by a disgruntled fan of the pro-government website 888.hu. In Romania, police assaulted several journalists – for both Romanian and foreign news outlets – covering a mass anti-government protest in Bucharest. And in Spain, a reporter and a cameraman for the TV channel Telemadrid were mobbed and pushed about by a group of squatters when they went to report on complaints made by local residents against the squatters in a Madrid housing complex.
Intimidation: Media workers harassed and threatened
There were 15 verified reports across EU member states, candidates and potential candidates. Germany led the field with 3, closely followed by Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (2 each). Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden all accounted for 1 report each.
In Germany, journalists covering far-right protests in Chemnitz, Dresden and Stuttgart were harassed by demonstrators. At the Chemnitz demonstration, police failed to intervene to protect reporters threatened by a neo-Nazi mob, while in Stuttgart, police denied journalists access to a metro station being used by members of the ultra-nationalist Identitäre Bewegung (IB) once the protest was over. The journalists were told that “This is where your press freedom ends.” In Dresden, far-right demonstrators taking part in an anti-Merkel protest harassed a TV crew working for the public broadcaster ZDF, with one shouting “Lügenpresse!” at the journalists. “Lying press” is a pejorative term regularly used by the far right in Germany as an insult against the mainstream media.
In one of the Croatian cases, freelance journalist Drago Pilsel became the target of threats – including some death threats – after a senior member of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party said in a media interview that the journalist’s questioning of the actions of the Croatian military during the 1990s war put his loyalty to the country in doubt. In the other Croatian incident, the editor of a satirical TV news programme received a death threat after the show dealt with an episode in Croatia’s struggles to achieve independence.
In Sweden, Hanif Bali, a member of parliament for the conservative Moderate party, was accused of threatening the newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) after posting images of himself with weapons on social media. Bali posted two images, one in which he was carrying a weapon at a firing range and another of a mocked up cover for the Call of Duty console game with the caption ‘Press E to destroy DN.’ Bali has had public disagreements with the newspaper in the past and is a vocal critic of the Swedish press on social media.
In Albania, the parental home of investigative journalist Klodiana Lala was sprayed with automatic gunfire in what the leader of the opposition described as “a clear mafia-style message.”
In the Balkans, Dino Jahić, editor-in-chief of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) and other CINS journalists received death threats after the president of the Bosnian Serb republic (Republika Srpska), Milorad Dodik, accused them of using “money from international organisations” to “destroy regional political structures,” as a result of which Jahić and CINS became the subject of a campaign of vilification in the Bosnian Serb media.
And in Bosnia’s other entity, the Sarajevo-based independent news website Klix.ba received a threatening phone call after covering a protest held by war veterans demanding more generous state benefits.
Online harassment: Virtual threats
In several of the cases of intimidation, online harassment was one of the main weapons used. In the Croatian incidents detailed above, the threats were delivered via Facebook.
In Albania, an MP of the centre-right opposition Democratic Party made threats against investigative journalist Jetmir Olldashi on Facebook, after Olldashi published an article alleging that the MP had concealed a past conviction for corruption and suspicious assets.
Lithuanian journalist Dainius Sinkevicius was also threatened on Facebook after he published an article describing the power struggle between rival gangs in the Pravieniskes prison.
In Sweden, Hanif Bali, a member of parliament for the conservative Moderate party, posted images of himself on social media brandishing weapons and declaring that he was “at war with DN” (the newspaper Dagens Nyheter). Bali, who has had public disagreements with Dagens Nyheter in the past and is a vocal critic of the Swedish press in general on social media, also wrote “Press E to destroy DN” in the same post.
Arrests/detentions: Turkey targets Kurdish journalists
Three verified reports of arrests/detentions of journalists were filed to Mapping Media Freedom in August. Two of these related to reporters for pro-Kurdish news outlets detained in Turkey. Ruken Demir, a journalist with Mezopotamya news agency, was arrested in Diyarbakır and held in custody for three days before being released under judicial control measures. Uğur Akgül, a former reporter for the shuttered Dicle News Agency (DİHA), was arrested in Mardin after a court upheld his prison sentence.
In Germany, police briefly detained a TV crew for public broadcaster ZDF after a far-right demonstrator in Dresden complained that the crew had been filming him without his permission.
Criminal charges: Hefty sentences handed down
Turkey was responsible for all 5 of the reports relating to criminal charges brought against journalists in August. Three of the reports related to journalists formerly employed by media outlets that were shut down in the wake of the failed 2016 coup. One related to 10 former employees of the Turkish state broadcaster TRT who received lengthy prison sentences after being convicted of “membership of an armed terrorist organisation.” And a former web editor of the Cumhuriyet daily was given a 5-month suspended sentence for publishing a controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the paper’s website, after being tried on the charge of “inciting the public to hatred and animosity.”
Defamation and discredit: Method of counter-attack
There were 6 verified reports in August relating to journalists being the target of defamation and discredit – one each from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Latvia, North Macedonia and Portugal. Most of the perpetrators were politicians trying to deflect attention from negative coverage of their affairs in the media.
Censorship: Contracting space for expression of diverse views
There were 7 reports relating to censorship verified by MMF in August: 4 in Hungary, 2 in Poland and 1 in Turkey.
In Hungary, the government continued its efforts to bring private media outlets into line with the non-critical stance maintained by state-controlled media. At the beginning of the month, Hír TV, a news channel which since 2015 had been critical the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, was taken over by figures close to the government. A number of independent voices on the channel were immediately dismissed, and programmes noted for their critical stance were cancelled. Later in the month, another Hír TV show was axed and its host sacked in what the presenter described as an act of “political revenge.” At another commercial TV station owned by an Orbán ally, TV2, a football blogger was dropped after he criticised a newly launched sports brand co-owned by a close friend of the prime minister on social media. And the editor of a moderately conservative journal, Kommentár, was replaced by a more radical conservative, whom the independent news website Index.hu predicted would be “more unequivocally loyal to the ruling party.”
In Poland, financial journalist Aleksander Pudłowski quit his job with the state-funded Polish Press Agency (PAP) in protest after coming under pressure to put a positive spin on a pension scheme promoted by the conservative government. And coverage of the funeral of a popular rock singer, Olga Sipowicz, on national broadcaster TVP was radically curtailed because she had been severely critical of the government and several of the friends who paid tribute to her were also opposed to the government.
In Turkey, an article by the Washington correspondent of mass circulation daily Hürriyet was removed from the paper’s website shortly after publication, apparently because it contained information relating to the diplomatic spat between Ankara and Washington over the Turkish authorities’ arrest of US pastor Andrew Brunson that could prove to be embarrassing to the government.